Thursday, August 14, 2014

Review: Latin for Bird Lovers

We here at Hipster Birders love words, and bird names, in particular, have been at the heart of many a pun throughout our blogging careers. But the fact is that many bird names have obscure meanings, and scientific (“Latin”) names, doubly so. Take the common Rock Pigeon, for instance — Columba livia. As familiar as we all are with this species, few of us have the tools to translate the Latin into something comprehensible that we can relate back to the bird (Columba from kolumbis, meaning diver; livia from livor, referring to the bluish-gray color).

Fortunately, Timber Press recently published a really stunning volume, Latin for Bird Lovers, by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr. In over 3,000 entries, the authors describe the root words that make up either the genus or species name for a given bird. Not all of them are based on classical Latin — many are Greek, while others are French, German, Swedish, or from an indigenous people’s language. Some are named for individuals, and others for places, or myths. The book doesn’t go into depth for every entry, but it covers a vast territory.

Even without a lot of detail, though, there’s room for big surprises. Here’s the entry for Excalfactoria, for instance:

"Ex, out of, cal, heat, and factoria, place of production, because Chinese used these birds as hand-warmers, as in Excalfactoria chinensis, the King Quail"
And while we closely associate the Ammodramus sparrows with marshes, the word actually translates to something like sand-runner (Ammos = sand, and dramos = to run).

But a small subset of genera do get a full-page treatment, covering everything from the life history and distribution of its constituent species, to the etymology for various sub-groups. Two other types of features also get longer spreads: “famous birders,” describing the contributions to ornithology, or achievements in listing by such people as Alexander Wilson and Phoebe Snetsinger; and “bird themes,” discussing different aspects of birds, like their beaks, feathers, or coloration. We also get to see some of the Latin behind other bird-related words, like “cline” and “cere.”

While it wasn’t necessarily an intent of the book, I was fascinated to be able to identify some of these root words in everyday language, helping me understand lots of non-bird etymology, too. For instance, there are at least seven entries that include the root fuscus, meaning dark — also the root in “obfuscate.” Catharis, as in the genus of thrushes, comes from kathartes, meaning cleanser — also the basis for the word “catharsis.” Before reading this book, I’d usually thought of these difficult thrushes as inducing stress, not relieving it!

There’s no wrong way to use this book. I found myself flipping back and forth quite a lot: when told a genus or species name for a bird, I often wanted to know the other part right away. But you won’t always find both parts of an example species’ binomial. For example, Sasia abnormis is shown as an example under abnormis, but Sasia is never defined. Again, Calidris is never defined, although Dunlin, Red Knot, and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper are all given as examples in other sections. The book isn’t intended to be comprehensive, and it does include quite a lot of international birds (see Hoopoe, Kakapo), but while we might quibble about some of their choices, you’ll find many of the names most interesting to American birders (e.g. Empidonax, Dendroica, Setophaga).

Another reason it’s a pleasure to flip through this book are the illustrations. Nearly every page includes works by Audubon, John Gould, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and others. These are gorgeous, classic illustrations that are every bit as compelling as the text, and are some of the best representations of the birds being treated. Sadly, though, the artists haven’t been given any attribution within these pages (the picture credits are only noted for works still under copyright).

Latin for Bird Lovers is a terrific read, and works as either a reference book or a coffee table book. It’s for anyone who loves birds, and anyone who loves words. Whether you want to gain insight into a bird’s defining characteristics, or into some of the words we encounter everyday, this is a book for you.


  1. This looks like an amazing and enjoyable resource! I hadn't even heard of it; thanks for publicizing.

    1. My pleasure! I thought of you as someone who would enjoy it. I hope it gains traction, because it's really a very neat book

  2. Glad you liked it, Nicholas. But don't trust this book at all: even as the examples you praise show, it is marred -- on literally every page -- by error and imprecision. There are many, many more reliable and more accurate sources available, in print and on line. This one will only lead you astray.

    1. Oh, what a shame! It was so much to flip through, and knowing absolutely no Latin myself, I took it for granted that the translations were accurate. Thank you for setting us straight, Rick. I'll be interested to look into some of the alternate sources.